FEMALE genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) threatens about three million girls annually and at least 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries, according to Unicef.
However, activists believe it is practised in at least 45 countries. While FGM/C is often associated with Africa, it is more widespread in Asian countries, including Malaysia.
In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) unanimously passed a resolution calling it a human rights violation and urged nations to ban the practice and the ban was reaffirmed in 2014. The resolution was adopted by all UN member states, including Malaysia.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as comprising all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
This includes pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation of the female genitalia. In fact, WHO maintains a broad definition of FGM to avoid all loopholes that might allow the practice to continue.
Closer to home, the issue of FGM/C or berkhatan is fraught with silence in Malaysia as it is intermingled with cultural and ethnic demands alongside bodily autonomy – the right to control one’s own body, and bodily integrity – the right to autonomy and self-determination over one’s own body – of children and women.
Although it is widely prevalent, it is less talked about within the Malaysian context. It usually involves a prick or a slit at the top of the clitoris and is widely contested whether it is construed as genital mutilation as FGM/C is often understood as only clitoridectomy and infibulation, which is a total or partial excision of the clitoris and the narrowing of the vagina through the creation of a covering seal. Similar practices exist among Malay Muslims of southern Thailand and Indonesia.
There have been a few studies about this in Malaysia. For instance, a study in 1999 by Ab Rehman Isa et al in Kelantan found that all 262 Malay-Muslim women respondents had been “circumcised”.
A more recent survey by Salleha Khalid et al in 2016 of 402 Malay-Muslim women revealed that a mere 4% – 16 out of 402 women – had not been “circumcised”. The same study also noted the practice was absent in other ethnic groups.
The procedure was previously performed by the bidan or village midwives but with rapid urbanisation, it has moved to formal healthcare settings like clinics and hospitals.
The “medicalisation” of FGM/C, however, brought with it a dilemma for doctors – whether to perform the procedure and if so, how exactly to do so.
Doctors turned to the Health Ministry, which then consulted the National Fatwa Committee, as it was considered a religious question.
Mary J. Ainslie in her study – The 2009 Malaysian Female Circumcision Fatwa: State ownership of Islam and the current impasse – said “rather than continue dialogue with medical practitioners or open up discussions with international Islamic organisations, the department’s immediate response was to draw up and issue the fatwa very quickly in early 2009”.
She said the action disappointed and puzzled many in the ministry and opened a significant debate on the issue.
Religious leaders globally have also debated considerably on FGM/C. In 2006, the Cairo-based Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah – a centre for Islamic legal research and a pioneering foundation for fatwa in the Islamic world – convened an international conference of scientists, Islamic legal scholars, specialist researchers and activists.
After hearing from a diverse range of opinions, it concluded that “the mutilation presently practised in some parts of Egypt, Africa and elsewhere represents a deplorable custom which finds no justification in the authoritative sources of Islam, the Quran and the practice of the Prophet”.
It also noted that no form of the practice exists in Saudi Arabia and issued a fatwa making FGM/C haram.
In fact, the former grand mufti of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ali Gomaa went on to say, “taking active action on this front is crucial if we are to remain true to our Islamic values and principles. Islam is a religion of knowledge, learning and research. While FGM was previously practised as a social custom (and not a religious matter)… it becomes a religious obligation to say unequivocally that the practice of FGM is today forbidden in Islam.”
The 2009 Malaysian fatwa, however, marked a paradigm shift in the practice with female circumcision moving from being sunnah (recommended) to becoming wajib (obligatory) and is markedly different from Dar al-Ifta’s fatwa – right from the process of how it was formulated, the guiding principles and to, of course, the outcome.
These differences only demonstrate that there exists a diversity of religious interpretations on the issue of FGM/C across Islam.
In countries, such as Burkina Faso and Senegal in West Africa, religious leaders themselves have led the call for abandonment of the practice and with success.
If today, more countries decry the practice as un-Islamic, why is the Malaysian fatwa different? Is this primarily because the identities of ethnicity and religion in this country are commingled and it is difficult to extricate cultural practices from religious ones?
Is it because decision-making processes on religion are more parochial in Malaysia in comparison to other countries?
Research shows that if countries prioritise the elimination of FGM/C, they adopt programmes and policies to correct social and cultural practices.
There are decisive and positive precedents in interpretations of religious laws to enable this. On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, the interests and wellbeing of women and girls call on each one of us to think of the bigger picture and to think of the long-lasting impacts of female genital mutilation – both physical and psychological – on our young girls and women. – February 6, 2018.
* Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the executive director of ARROW, a regional non-profit women’s organisation established in 1993 and based in Kuala Lumpur. ARROW strives to enable women to be equal citizens in all aspects of their life by ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and rights are achieved.
* Rozana Isa is the executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-government organisation working to advance the rights of women in Malaysia within the framework of Islam, universal principles of human rights, constitutional guarantees and lived realities.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.